Community and Communion


Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.

This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”

(Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 128-129).

Awareness of God’s Presence

The sense of the presence of God.  Something I pray everyone I know may have.  I wish everyone in the world could have it.

In Paradise, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God, they would consciously have to ignore God, intentionally block God from their hearts/minds, not to be aware of God. Literally, they  lived in His presence, in the Paradise in which God was the gardener.  They were protected by God and so nothing could hurt them.  And yet Eve, and Adam chose to banish God from their thinking.  They expelled God from their lives in order to experience the world without God’s presence.  They felt they could think more clearly if not living in that bright cloud in which God speaks (see Psalm 99:7; Matthew 17:5). [Note – in Paradise, Satan knew he could not harm God’s creatures; they were protected by the Almighty Creator.    Humans could be harmed only if they did it to themselves by choosing to wean themselves away from God.  Satan does not make Eve or Adam do anything.  In Genesis 3, Satan only hints and suggests, he never even tells Eve or Adam what to do.  They make those choices of their own free will and to their own demise.  Satan has no power over Adam and Eve, and if we Orthodox would follow our own prayers at the baptismal exorcism, we would realize that like Adam and Eve in Paradise, Satan has no power over any sealed, enlisted warrior for Christ.]

How was it possible to exile God their Creator from the world which God had made?  And yet the first humans did just that – they created some kind of limit to God, blocking God from their own sensory experience, so they could chose for themselves apart from God.   Amazing!  Yet, we all – every human being – have that same power: each of us can put God out of mind, can function as if God does not exist, can forget God completely in our daily lives.

God for God’s part has chosen to limit His own omnipotence.  When God created human beings with free will, the Almighty chose to limit divine power.   God allowed creatures to think apart from divinity and to make choices against God’s own will.   Clearly in Scriptures, God limited His own powers – in the burning bush for example.   God reveals that being all powerful means even being able to limit that power.   The burning bush was simply a foreshadowing of the real intention of God’s limits –  the incarnation in the womb of Mary in which the uncontainable God limits His presence and powers. One of the powers of the almighty God is to limit His own omnipotence!  Mary as Theotokos is both the mystery of God limiting His own omnipotence as well as the miracle of a human being able to contain divinity.

If we want to live in a world in which God’s power is limited – which we chose when we chose like Eve and Adam to follow our own will rather than God’s – God is willing to be at work in that world as well since it is still part of God’s own creation.  The Old Testament in which God appears in shadows and is veiled in mystery is the history of God limiting His almighty self in order to deal with us on our terms.  In giving us free will, God decided to deal with us on our terms for He certainly did not predestine our choices.  Just look at Genesis 2:19 –  “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”  God even waits to see what Adam will call each species of animal.  God doesn’t predetermine even such a simple thing as the names of the animals He creates.  Humans have a creative role to play and they do choose and determine many things for themselves and for all creation.  [At least in Genesis of the Jews and Christians.  In the Quran, conversely, God determines everything, even the names of the animals.  Adam’s task is simply to memorize what God has predetermined the names of the animals to be.  Adam is not a creative being, but merely an obedient one in Islam’s creation story.  God tests Adam to see if he has in fact memorized what God has done.  Unlike in Islam, in Judaism and Christianity, humans have clear free will from the beginning and God observes what the humans choose – God’s love means the almighty God exercises restraint over God’s own omnipotence.]

Adam naming the animals in Paradise

The world of the Fall is a world in which God has limited His omnipotence, in which we do not always or automatically sense God’s presence.  We are not guaranteed His protection either, for example,  God does not protect us from the consequences of our own behavior.

And yet, God continues to love us and care for us and to work out His plan for our salvation.  Law, prophets, promises, saints, miracles – all were given to us to help us be aware of God’s presence.  The Old Testament is the witness to God’s continual and uninterrupted love for us humans.

Today, we also have Holy Communion for those united to Christ in baptism and chrismation.  The Eucharist is God’s gift to us to enable to further experience God’s own presence in our world, in our lives, as God works out His plan for the salvation of the world.

In the midst of a broken, fallen world, we experience grace in Holy Communion.  For in the Eucharist God is present in creation in a way which wasn’t even true in the Paradise of Adam and Eve.  We can become aware again of God’s abiding presence in His creation.  We can experience God directly and fully.  We are not alone in the world, we are not without divine help and protection.   Throughout Lent with our increased opportunities for receiving the Eucharist, we have ever more reason to be thankful and joyful and hopeful. We are not completely cut off from God, we are not orphans without a heavenly Father.  Every time we come to church, we are placing ourselves in the presence of God.  We can experience God in creation as well, but in Church we have the special gifts from God of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Christ in our midst and Christ in us.  As we pray at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts [emphasis is mine and not in the text] :

Look upon us, Your unworthy servants who stand at this holy altar as the Cherubic throne, upon which rests Your only-begotten Son and our God, in the dread Mysteries that are set forth. Having freed us all and all Your faithful people from uncleanness, sanctify all our souls and bodies with the sanctification which cannot be taken away, that partaking with a clean conscience, with faces unashamed, with hearts illumined, of these divine, sanctified Things, and by them being given life, we may be united to Your Christ Himself, our true God, Who has said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him,” that by Your Word, O Lord, dwelling within us and sojourning among us, we may become a temple of Your all-holy and adorable Spirit, redeemed from every diabolical wile, wrought either by deed or word or thought, and may obtain the good things promised to us with all Your saints who have been well-pleasing to You.

Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

Thanksgiving (2016)

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St. John of Kronstadt says, ‘Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.’ If I do not feel a sense of joy in God’s creation, if I forget to offer the world back to God with thankfulness, I have advanced very little upon the Way. I have not yet learnt to be truly human. For it is only through thanksgiving that I can become myself. Joyful thanksgiving, so far from being escapist or sentimental, is on the contrary entirely realistic – but with the realism of one who sees the world in God, as the divine creation.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 55)

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In the Church We Live in Christ

“Hence the Church, in the Orthodox Tradition, is identified with the Sacrament of the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist. She is a Sacramental Body of Christ and not a hierocratic institution. The eastern Church Fathers consider the nature of the Church as primarily and essentially a priestly mission of her divine Bridegroom (cf. Exod. 18:; 1 Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 5,10). In the Eucharistic service, the whole Church is associated with the sacrifice of Christ, united essentially with His flesh and blood, and transformed into the very body of Christ, Who is her Heart and Head (cf. 1 Cor. 12, 27)

‘When the Church partakes of them (the holy mysteries)’, John of Damascus and Nicholas Cabasilas write, ‘she does not transform them into the human body, as we do with ordinary food, but she is changed into them, for the higher and divine element overcomes the earthly one. When iron is placed in fire, it becomes fire; it does not, however, give fire the properties of iron; and just as when we see white-hot iron it seems to be fire and not metal, since all the characteristics of the iron have been destroyed by the action of the fire, so, if one could see the Church of Christ insofar as she is united to Him and share in His sacred body, one would see nothing other than the body of the Lord.’

Commenting on Saint Paul’s expression: ‘You are the body of Christ and members in particular’ (1 Cor. 12.27), Cabasilas adds:

If he called Christ the head and us the members, it was not that he might express…our complete subjection to Him…..but to demonstrate a fact – to wit, that from henceforth the faithful, through the blood of Christ, would live in Christ, truly dependent on that head and clothed with that body (1 Cor. 12.27).’” (Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Easter Patristic Orthodox Theology, pp 100-101)

Christ is Born in Us

“The providence of God does not conform itself to our desires. He works, as we have seen, through the scandals.

So it is not by sight, but by faith that we live (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7),  faith that God is indeed still at work in the same manner: in and through the virgin Church – not the institution that would like to avoid scandal by having everything in good order – but the virgin Church who is a scandal to others because she remains true to Christ, the one marginalized by society, persecuted and looked upon with scorn and derision, the one who in this way still manifests in this world the transforming presence of the broken body of Christ, the one who still gives birth to Christ, to sons of God. We can therefore take heart from what we have heard today.

For if we believe what we have said about how God does indeed rule creation and its history, arranging everything providentially for the manifestation of his Christ, then taking our stand upon the same firm rock of Christ, we will be able to affirm that, despite all the chaos in which we find ourselves, everything – every aspect of our lives – is held within his providence, as a way of leading us to him. But we will not see this if we approach him on our terms, with our expectations, desires, and presuppositions; only if we approach him on his terms, the one who said that his strength is made perfect in weakness, will we begin to understand, and indeed see, how God is ruling all creation, arranging everything for the revelation of the sons of God.

Let us pray, then, that we may have faith to know that God is unexpectedly at work even now in unsuspected ways, that we may respond to the work of God, and become the vessels of his mighty power, so that Christ may truly be born in us.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp 114-115)

Going to Church on Sunday

Why do we “go to church” on Sunday?

There are many reasons which can be given.  Alternatively, one could say the question is all wrong, since as the New Testament tells us, we don’t go to church, we are the Church – wherever we Christians go, there is the Church.  Being the Church is something which is a natural result of being Christian.  The building we go to is not “the Church” but the sacred place where we assemble in order to experience the kingdom of God in the Church which is the Body of Christ, namely, the assembly of believers.

That being said, still we do assemble together for the purpose of doing God’s work on earth.  We assemble to incarnate the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst.  Demetrios S. Katos offers another thought about why we assemble as Christians to constitute the Church:

“This is why the Church assembles weekly in the Eucharist, not merely to offer petitions, but to remind us that communion with God requires sacrifice. Each Sunday we remember all that the Lord has done for us – ‘the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second, glorious coming’ – and we are moved to eagerly offer everything we have in return, proclaiming, ‘Thine own of thine own we offer unto you.’” (Thinking Through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars, pp 64-65)

 

The Liturgy itself is an offering to God – of our hearts, of our lives, of our thanksgiving.  The Liturgy is Eucharistic which means it is is our thanksgiving to God.  Sts Barsanuphius & John instruct us in what we need in order to be Christian, to be the Church:

“Labor to acquire thanksgiving toward God for everything and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and then you will find peace.” (Guidance Toward Spiritual Life, p 94)

Thanksgiving (2015)

St Basil the Great (d. 379) gave a sermon that is a wonderful meditation for those of us celebrating Thanksgiving Day today.

“In more fortunate circumstances will we speak the words of David, What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

He has called us into being out of nothing; he has endowed us with reason, bestowed on us skills to help us preserve life; he has caused food to grow from the ground and has made beasts subject to us.

For our sake it rains, the sun shines, there are mountains and plains, and he has prepared for us places of shelter in the mountains even up to the highest peak.

The rivers flow for our use, springs bubble up, the sea is open to us for trade, the mines for treasure. All that we enjoy, bestowed on us in all creation, we have around us through the rich and marvelous good of the creator.

But why limit examples to these small things? It was for our sake that God himself came to walk among humankind. For the sake of the corruptible flesh the Word became flesh and lived among us. The creator tarried for the sake of the ingrates; the sun of righteousness to those who sit in the shadows; the impassible went to the cross, life in death, light in the underworld, resurrection for the sake of those who had died, the adoption of the Holy Spirit, the promised allotment of God’s grace, the promises of crowns.

In short: everything beyond number, upon which fits the Prophet’s utterance: What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?

And these are not things our great Benefactor has simply given, but rather given back, as part of a grand cycle of giving. The thanks we render to him, he regards as so many good deeds, and holds us accountable. These assets that are given to you, advance them to the Benefactor by your alms through the hands of the poor, and although he has received his own property, so it is a perfect thanks, as if you have given from your own goods.

Parable of poor Lazarus

What shall I return to the Lord, for all his bounty to me?

I cannot let go of this saying of the Prophet, which sums up so well our present circumstances, as he sees his poverty and the deserving countergift of the Lord. Yet such magnanimous charity is nothing compared to the greater promises: the delights of paradise, the grandeur of heaven, angelic honor, the vision of God, the greatest good of all, honor, whatever each reasonable being desires, which portion we shall share after we put off the desires of the flesh.” (On Fasting and Feasts, pp 118-119)

I wish everyone a Blessed Thanksgiving Day!

Oh, give thanks to the LORD!
Call upon His name;
Make known His deeds among the peoples!
Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him;
Talk of all His wondrous works!
Glory in His holy name;
Let the hearts of those rejoice who seek the LORD!
Seek the LORD and His strength;
Seek His face evermore!
Remember His marvelous works which He has done,
. . . . .

Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His wonders among all peoples.
For the LORD is great and greatly to be praised;
He is also to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before Him;
Strength and gladness are in His place.
Give to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
Give to the LORD glory and strength.
Give to the LORD the glory due His name;
Bring an offering, and come before Him.
Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness!
Tremble before Him, all the earth.
The world also is firmly established,
It shall not be moved.

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
And let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness;
Let the field rejoice, and all that is in it.
Then the trees of the woods shall rejoice before the LORD,
For He is coming to judge the earth.
Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!
For His mercy endures forever.
And say, “Save us, O God of our salvation;
Gather us together, and deliver us from the nations,
To give thanks to Your holy name,
To triumph in Your praise.”
Blessed be the LORD God of Israel
From everlasting to everlasting!
And all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD.

(1 Chronicles 16:8-36)

In Everything Give Thanks

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) writes about the importance of being grateful to God for every blessing we receive.  His words are most appropriate for us to consider during our Thanksgiving Holiday.

“Thus we should all give thanks to God, as it is said: ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess. 5:18). Closely linked to this phrase is another of St Paul’s injunctions: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), that is, be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things.

When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you;

when you see the sky,

the earth,

the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator;

 

when you put on clothing,

acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life.

In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St Paul commends (cf. 1 Thess. 5:15). For as St Dorotheos explains, remembrance of God rejoices the soul; and he adduces David as witness: ‘I remembered God, and rejoiced’ (cf. Ps. 77:3. LXX). (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 28921-41)

Let Us Lift Up Our Hearts!

‘Let us lift up our hearts,’ says the celebrant, and the people answer: ‘We have lifted them up to the Lord.’

The Eucharist is the anaphora, the ‘lifting up’ of our offering, and of ourselves. It is the ascension of the Church to heaven. ‘But what do I care about heaven,’ says St. John Chrysostom, ‘when I myself have become heaven…?’ The Eucharist has so often been explained with reference to the gifts alone: what ‘happens’ to bread and wine happens because something has, first of all, happened to us, to the Church. It is because we have ‘constituted’ the Church, and this means we have followed Christ in His ascension; because He has accepted us at His table in His Kingdom; because, in terms of theology, we have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space; it is because all this has first happened to us that something will happen to bread and wine.

‘Let us lift up our hearts,’ says the celebrant. ‘We lift them up until the Lord,’ answers the congregation. ‘Let us give thanks unto the Lord’ (Eucharistisomen), says the celebrant.

When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do by give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through this Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.

‘It is fitting and right to give thanks,’ answers the congregation, expressing in these words that ‘unconditional surrender; with which true ‘religion’ begins. For faith is not the fruit of intellectual search, or of Pascal’s ‘betting’. It is not a reasonable solution to the frustrations and anxieties of life. It does not arise out of a ‘lack’ of something, but ultimately it comes out of fullness, love and joy. ‘It is meet and right’ expresses all this. It is the only possible response to the divine invitation to live and to receive abundant life.”  (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the Worlds: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, pp 37-38)